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Media Debate: More Newsrooms Avoid “Illegal Immigrants”

PHOTO: California DREAMer protest, 2010.
PHOTO: California DREAMer protest, 2010.
October 17, 2012

SAN ANTONIO - Adjective or adverb? More and more newsrooms are debating how best to use the word "illegal" when referring to residents who did not move to the United States with proper documentation.

From CNN to The Huffington Post, major outlets that have been trying to expand their Latino audiences are avoiding the term "illegal immigrant." The San Antonio Express-News, whose reach extends into Mexico, decided two years ago that the term was not consistent with how the paper described others suspected of breaking laws. Managing editor Jamie Stockwell says it's like calling someone accused of violating traffic laws an "illegal driver."

"So, the correct way to describe a person's immigration status - when that information is relevant - is to say that a person is in the country illegally. And then we cite the source of our information; for example, 'Police said the man is in the United States illegally.' "

The paper uses "illegal immigration" when describing the unauthorized movement of people across the border. Occasionally, reporters use the term "undocumented immigrant." Stockwell thinks recent immigration policy changes are accelerating the debate in newsrooms. Since the Obama administration announced last year it would stop targeting certain young immigrants for deportation, their status has become a gray area.

David Bennion, a Philadelphia-based immigration attorney, also prefers "undocumented" to "illegal." Although imperfect, he thinks it's less offensive within immigrant communities. He says identifying people who have lived and worked in the United States for large parts of their lives as "illegal" alienates them from society.

"It's designed to segregate people into a class of people who can be excluded from legal protections, from the political process, from economic opportunities."

Bennion says he rarely meets an immigration judge who uses the term "illegal immigrant." He thinks that's because it's jumping to a conclusion about them before giving them due process.

Stockwell says accuracy was not the only reason her paper decided to avoid the term. Labels, she explains, can change over time, according to the preferences of those being labeled. She says the views within immigrant communities are well known to staffers who helped shape the Express-News' current policy.

"People who'd been editing immigration issues for many years, people who had come from south Texas and covering immigrants - and crimes involving immigrants - for many years. So, it came from a respect for the people who we're covering, and just not feeling comfortable calling them illegal."

She sees pushback against the term gaining steam, and predicts someday the term "illegal immigrant" will rarely be used by news organizations. So far, "the newspaper of record" - The New York Times - is holding out, but immigrant advocates have been lobbying its editors to reconsider their policy.

Bennion's blog analysis is online at The New York Times' explanation of its policy is at

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX